An investigative report by the French journalism outlet Disclose has revealed that French law enforcement agencies have been covertly using an advanced surveillance software developed by the Israeli company Briefcam since 2015. This technology, which includes facial recognition capabilities, has reportedly been deployed without full legal compliance, sparking concerns over privacy and civil liberties.
According to Disclose, the software, known as “Video Synopsis,” offers a range of surveillance capabilities. It can track individuals based on visual markers like clothing color, follow vehicles using license plate recognition, and condense hours of video footage into manageable summaries. Its most controversial feature, however, is facial recognition, which has been a point of contention due to its potential for privacy infringement.
The report highlights that the use of Video Surveillance Algorithm (VSA) technology by the French national police was strictly limited until recent legislative changes, in anticipation of the upcoming Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games. These changes permit broader application of VSA until March 2025 but explicitly restrict facial recognition use. Despite this, there are indications that facial recognition features may be actively employed by certain police departments.
Disclose‘s investigation found that the technology has been progressively deployed across various French regions, including in departments specializing in high-level criminal surveillance. The rollout of this technology occurred discreetly, sidestepping the legal requirement for a data protection impact analysis and bypassing the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), raising serious legal questions.
Internal communications obtained by Disclose suggest a level of awareness and caution within the police force about the legal ramifications of using Briefcam’s facial recognition feature. Emails from police officials recommend discretion due to the lack of formal declaration of the software’s use to CNIL.
The software’s application extends beyond France. Disclose notes its use in countries like Israel, the United States, Brazil, Taiwan, and Singapore. In France, it is not limited to national law enforcement but is also used by municipal police in over a hundred cities, including surveillance in public spaces like the Puy du Fou amusement park.
French MP Philippe Latombe, a board member of the French data protection authority, shared his perspective with Euractiv on the use of facial recognition by French police. He outlined four scenarios, each with different legal and ethical implications. The most acceptable scenario, in his view, is the use of Briefcam by police without its biometric features and under judicial oversight, which he believes raises no legal issues. The second scenario involves the use of facial recognition for specific searches under a judge’s supervision; while lacking a firm legal basis, it is somewhat mitigated by judicial oversight.
Latombe expressed more significant concerns about the other two scenarios: generalized scanning of faces with or without judicial oversight. The former would constitute a severe violation equating to mass surveillance, prohibited under EU and French law, while the latter would be a serious legal infraction. However, Latombe indicated that, based on available information, the French police seem to be using Briefcam’s technology primarily for specific, post-event inquiries under judicial oversight, avoiding generalized scanning.
November 16, 2023 – by the FindBiometrics Editorial Team